Hard questions

By JAMIE KHOO, The Star, March 23, 2008

A book editor is inspired to share the profound effect working on a manuscript has had on her

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- LITTLE truths shock us. This is what I discovered while editing "If Not Now, When?", a coffee table book of quotations by Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high Lama from Gaden Shartse Monastery in India and spiritual advisor of Kechara House in Malaysia.

<< Tsem Tulku Rinpoche asks: "If not now, when?"

As I worked to put the quotes – extracted from his teachings and personal text messages to students – together into book form with co-editor Sharon Saw, I found myself struggling to put them into the context of my own life.

I had thought before that it is easy to dismiss grand discussions about compassion, kindness, happiness, that these are best left to the holy men, the priests, nuns, pastors, monks, imams and yogis. But in their brevity, these quotes shook me out of my comfort zone because they bring the enormity of issues like joy and sadness, harmony and conflict, commitment and irresponsibility, love and fear, and life and death into the tiny mundane scope of everyday living.

We decided to arrange the book’s chapters according to these seemingly opposing emotions because, in the process of selecting and editing the quotations, we realised that they’re not so different after all. They’re just two sides of the same coin – for instance, the energy of conflict can so easily be transformed into harmony, if only we took the initiative to make the switch.

Editing this book showed me my own anger, disappointment, and fear for what they are: “When a person that you have benefited and you have placed great hope in hurts you, it is not that person who has hurt you. It is your wrong intent, wrong motive and wrong projection toward that person that has hurt you.”

The book is headed by a foreword from the abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery, one of the largest and most renowned monastic universities in Tibetan history. We flew to South India, where the monastery has now relocated, to receive the foreword from him.

There, the experiences were all a contrast. In a place where 3,000 monks embody the quotations written in this book’s pages, we struggled to really see how we would come anywhere near to that way of living back in contemporary Kuala Lumpur.

Yes, the quotes are of a “spiritual nature” and they were spoken by a monk whose world seems far removed from us. And yet, as I would come to realise, these qualities are actually not too big for us to handle. The quotations in If Not Now, When? tell us that we start where we are, with what we have – world peace starts at home.

In fact, after rereading these quotations hundreds of times in the course of editing the book, I am confident enough to challenge anybody to dispute the relevance of these mini teachings in every aspect of our lives.

Being spiritual or “holy”, as the book defines, is not about having a halo over your head. Nor is spiritual practice, “about whether Buddha exists or God exists; it’s not about whether Catholicism is the real religion or Buddhism is the real religion. It’s about bringing harmony into our families, into our lives, into the people we care about NOW.”

We decided to mix it up when it came to the sequence of the quotes: sometimes, the quotations are joyful and bring lightness; sometimes, they will, we are sure, hit a raw nerve and embarrass; sometimes they might even frighten.

But what I realised after finishing the editing is that the crux of every quotation is not that angels shall fly down to rescue us from our unhappiness. It is that joy, harmony, love, and life are in our own hands and our minds; we take the responsibility to make things happen – or not. This is what made it so relevant and close for me.

Tsem Rinpoche pushes us right to the edge with these teachings and the sense of urgency is clear throughout the book. Happiness starts right here; we take the initiative and responsibility to make it happen in this moment because, If Not Now, When?

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